1115/2/14 CHURCH STREET
17-NOV-66 CHURCH OF SAINTS PETER AND PAUL
This list entry has been amended as part of the Bicentenary commemorations of the 1807 Abolition Act.
The church of Saints Peter and Paul, Olney, is situated in Church Street. Early C14 with later additions. In 1807 the clerestory was removed, part of the north aisle rebuilt, and the north porch was built. Also at this time, roofs with internal carving were removed; in 1825 some of the carved figures and heads from the roof were to be seen ornamenting gardens and buildings in the town. The south aisle was rebuilt in 1831. Extensive restoration work by Sir Gilbert Scott c1874-6. Further work in 1880, 1883 and 1885.
EXTERIOR: Ashlar, tiled roofs. Nave, with two aisles, chancel, and west tower. Tall tower with very fine Northamptonshire-style broach spire, late C14. The tower of three diminishing stages with diagonal buttresses, surmounted by stone broached spire with four sets of lucarnes, their hoods emphasising the spire's entasis. Octagonal pinnacles at the base of the spire, probably C17. West doorway in tower, with pointed head, moulded. Above the door a small west window with two trefoiled lights beneath mouchettes and quatrefoil; hood mould with head stops. A clock in the second stage, and in the third, a window similar to that below, but new, or restored. North and south aisles buttressed and embattled. Roof of chancel more steeply pitched than that of the nave. Lavishly crocketed finials at east end of chancel. A straight parapet on north and south sides of chancel, supported by a corbel course embellished with grotesques and flowers. North porch of 1807 has plain entrance doorway with two centred drop arch beneath a pointed two-light window.
INTERIOR: Spacious interior, 'scraped' in C19, but with good C14 features. The internal walls now bare stone. Fine north and south five-bay arcades with moulded pointed arches, supported by quatrefoil columns and responds, the capitals and bases moulded. Pointed triple-chamfered tower arch spanning full width of ground stage, and dying into walls on either side. A wooden screen and gallery of 1996 separates the tower from the nave, modern facilities having been created in the tower. Nave has low, segmentally vaulted plaster ceiling of 1807. North aisle has three three-light windows on north wall and one on west, all pointed; north-west window shorter, with original flowing tracery, the others restored. Blocked windows visible at a high level next to the two eastern windows; these lit the gallery erected in 1765 (during the celebrated incumbency of John Newton) and since removed. At south end of east wall, a small, worn, cinquefoiled piscina niche with modern sill. C19 wooden ceiling, its braces pierced with quatrefoils. In the south aisle, tall three-light window openings, almost entirely replaced. Ceiling as in north aisle. The chancel has three tall pointed windows in north and south walls, restored. The westerly pair is of the low-side type, having transoms in line with the sills of the other windows, their own sills being lower. The windows sit on a continuous roll moulding which follows these differing levels. Five-light east window restored by Scott, the design based on the church at nearby Emberton; the two churches share other features. To east of south wall triple sedilia with piscina, separated by circular shafts, all but the piscina itself almost entirely renewed. Opposite sedilia, a wide Easter Sepulchre with moulded drop arch, the tomb chest with quatrefoil panels in a delicately ornamented framework. At east end of north wall, an aumbry with wooden door. Small pointed doorway in south wall. Chancel has modern wooden ceiling. Chancel arch of three moulded orders, dying into the wall on north side, and into a short, corbelled projection to south.
GLASS: The south-west and north-west windows of chancel 1973 by Wippell Mowbray Church Furnishings commemorating John Newton and William Cowper. The east window is by Holland of Warwick, 1870. Other glass in chancel, C19. At east end of north aisle, a Chapel of Remembrance, with north-east window in north aisle by George Cooper Abbs, 1946, given in thanks for the safe return of many men of Olney from the First World War, and honouring illustrious men connected with Olney - Newton, Cowper, and the organist Henry John Gauntlett.
MONUMENTS: In chancel, a grey marble wall tablet, with mourning cherubs and gadrooned sill commemorating Catherine Johnson (d.1680); on south wall, a curious curvilinear shield to Moses Browne (d. 1787), vicar of Olney 1753-1787, and his son (d.1807). On north wall of north aisle, monument to William Games (d.1657), with broken pediment and naive skull.
FURNISHINGS: Notable furnishings include reredos of c1896 by Jones & Hollis, and late-C16 octagonal font, no longer in service. A plain C18 pulpit, reputed to be the one used by John Newton, stands in the south-west corner of the church. Behind it, the plaque formerly on Newton's coffin, removed when Newton's remains were brought here from St Mary Woolnoth. At east end of south aisle, the organ, by James Jepson Binns.
HISTORY: A church existed in the parish from a very early period; local tradition suggests that it was once on a different site, and since no vestige remains of a building earlier than the mid-C14 in the present structure, this may be correct.
The advowson of the church was appendant to the manor until 1482/3, when Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and his wife Anne, conveyed it to the dean and canons of the Chapel of St George, Windsor; the conveyance does not appear to have been effectual, and in 1487/8 both manor and advowson passed into the possession of the Crown. In 1502 the advowson was granted to the Abbey of Syon. After the dissolution of the monasteries the rectory was let until the early C17, when rectory and advowson were granted to Sir John Ramsey, a Scottish favourite of James I. Thereafter, the patronage passed through many hands.
From the mid-C18, the church of Saints Peter and Paul, Olney, became a centre of the evangelical revival. This was partly due to the 2nd Earl of Dartmouth, who in 1753 was responsible for the appointment of Moses Browne (1704-1787). Browne's poems on spiritual and other subjects were much admired, particularly 'Sunday Thoughts' (1750), as was his 1750 edition of Isaak Walton's 'Compleat Angler' (undertaken at the suggestion of Samuel Johnson). The living of Olney not being sufficient to support his large family, Browne accepted the chaplaincy of Morden College, Blackheath, and Browne's duties at Olney were left to a curate-in-charge. Once again the Earl of Dartmouth exerted his influence, and John Newton was chosen, the most famous priest to have been associated with the church.
John Newton (1725-1807), had spent the early part of his career as a slave trader. From 1745-1754 he worked on slave ships, serving as captain on three voyages; he was involved in every aspect of the slaver's trade, and his log books record the torture of rebellious slaves. Following his conversion to devout Christianity in 1748 Newton became 'surveyor of tides' at Liverpool, devoting his spare time to private theological study. He soon became one of the area's leading theological laymen, but for some time his radical reputation stood in the way of his finding employment in the Church of England.
Newton was curate-in-charge for Olney from 1764-1780. Soon after his arrival in Olney in 1764, his autobiography, the 'Interesting Narrative', appeared in print. Newton wrote: 'I hope the publication will give additional weight to my ministry here. The people stare at me since reading them, and well they may.' The 'Narrative' established him as one of the leading figures of the evangelical revival. Newton stayed at Olney for 16 years, winning fame as a preacher as well as a writer. In addition to services in the church, services and meetings were held in the nearby Great House (demolished in the C19), put at Newton's disposal for this purpose by the Earl of Dartmouth.
One of Newton's congregation at Olney was the poet William Cowper (1731-1800), who moved to the town in 1767 in the train of evangelical friends; he remained until 1786. Cowper was converted to the faith, and Newton persuaded him to collaborate in composing what were to become known as the 'Olney Hymns' (published 1779); two of the best-known are 'God moves in a mysterious way' and 'Amazing Grace'. (The latter, sung to a different tune, was to become associated with the struggle for equality in the southern states of America during the 1960s.) William Cowper's was the most influential poetic voice of the late C18 abolition movement; 'Charity' (1782), inspired by Newton's history, reproaches the slave merchant who 'grows rich on cargoes of despair'; whilst 'The Task' of 1784 appeals to the commonly held belief that slavery was illegal in England ('We have no slaves at home - then why abroad?'). In 1788, at Newton's instigation, Cowper wrote 'The Negro's Complaint' to help whip up anti-slavery sentiment; the poem swept the country, distributed on pamphlets, and sung as a ballad. By this time, both Newton and Cowper had left Olney; Newton in 1780 and Cowper in 1786.
Newton's new church was St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London (q.v.), where he was rector for 27 years. During the 1780s he made his major contributions to the campaign for abolition. Newton encouraged William Wilberforce to devote himself to political work, and it was probably through Wilberforce's persuasion that Newton published 'Thoughts on the African Slave Trade' (1788) which revealed his slaving past for the first time (though some have read 'Amazing Grace' as an expression of repentance); in the same year Newton gave evidence to the parliamentary select committee for examining the slave trade. Newton's singular position as a figure of unimpeachable moral authority with first-hand experience of the slave trade made his contribution to the success of the abolition movement extremely valuable (see entry for St Mary Woolnoth). John Newton died in December 1807, shortly after the Abolition Act passed into law.
The evangelical tradition was maintained at Olney after Newton's departure by his associate Thomas Scott (1747-1821) who remained at the church till 1785. In 1779 Scott had published his own spiritual autobiography, 'The Force of Truth' - the work received stylistic polishing from Cowper - but he is best known for his commentary on the Bible of 1788-92. Scott's work was admired by William Wilberforce. From 1815 to 1833 the vicar of Olney was the evangelical Henry Gauntlett (1762-1833), whose son was Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876), the celebrated organ designer, organist, and composer. He began his career aged nine, as his father's organist at Olney, remaining in the post for ten years.
The church of St Peter and St Paul stands at the south end of the town, on the banks of the river Ouse. In the south-east corner of the churchyard, a monument to John Newton and his wife (qv), erected in 1893 when the building of Bank Underground station led to their bodies being disinterred from St Mary Woolnoth. Beside the tomb, a small monument commemorating Newton's father-in-law, George Catlett (d.1777). To north of church, the vicarage with attached coach-house (qv), once Newton's home.
RCHM II p. 227 MON 1
N Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Buckinghamshire (1960)
N Pevsner, E Williamson and G Brandwood, The Buildings of England, Buckinghamshire (1994)
Victoria County History, Buckingham: 4 (1927)
J Betjeman and J Piper, Murray's Buckinghamshire Guide (1948)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edn)
J Walvin, The Trader, The Owner, The Slave (2007)
R Collins, The Parish Church of SS Peter & Paul, Olney (1964)
REASONS FOR DESIGNATION:
The church of Saints Peter and Paul, Olney is designated at Grade I for the following principal reasons:
* C14 church with exceptional broach spire in the Northamptonshire style
* Interior retains fine C14 structure, and some noteworthy C14 features
* Strong connection with John Newton, slave trader and clergyman, and William Cowper, poet and abolitionist, adds to historical interest of building.
* The unusual setting of the church, at the end of the town, remains remarkably unchanged since the C18